Going to the woods is going home…
While the rest of this quote talks about how harsh it is sometimes to be in the woods with the thorny branches that seem to be fighting against your entrance, going to Parque Nacional El Chico really embodied for me the comfort and easiness that going into the woods can inspire in your mind and soul. Besides, the smell of pine and the rugged rocky peaks jutting up from the forest brought my spirit back to where I grew up in New England.
We decided to go to El Chico for Semana Santa because it’s been a place that I’ve always been interested in and it seemed like maybe it wouldn’t get the same crowds for vacation as say the Sierra Gorda. Uncharacteristically, I only researched a small amount, maybe I was already channeling the spirit of John Muir who said that “people ought to saunter in the mountains.” Either way, we did plan enough to borrow Germán’s dad’s car and get everything ready on Wednesday night so that we could get out early on Thursday and hopefully beat the traffic. Luckily we only hit a bit of traffic and made it to El Chico (in the state of Hidalgo to the north of Mexico City) in about three hours. Before entering the park we passed through a small town where we stocked up on firewood, beer, snacks, fresh tortillas and homemade salsa. We were promised that from there to Dos Aguas, the campground we were planning on checking out first, there were no more stores. After our supply stop we entered the park through Presa el Cedral (a damed up lake), which seemed like a lovely spot to camp among the trees next to the water but it looked like it was already quite full and as the first campsite that most people get to, likely to fill up even more. So we kept going along the road which went climbing up with every twist and turn (and was surprisingly, actually as isolated as promised with not a chela for sale in sight). Because we had followed the road for Dos Aguas Campground, we didn’t pass another campsite along the way so when we arrived and saw the campsites nestled in private woodsy corners and listened to the camp manager warning of the possibility of it filling up if we left to check out another place we paid the $121 pesos for the campsite and set up camp.
Dos Aguas has about 5 cabins with space for four people each and probably 10 campsites, each offering a fair level of privacy from other campers. The bathrooms are very rustic pit latrines and the lack of lighting meant I had to hope no one came by while I was in the bathroom since I left the door open in order to not fall in. Supposedly there are showers but we only saw one water spout which was used to wash dishes and hands. Each cabin has a dedicated grill in addition to a firepit inside the cabin but the campsites just have firepits (we ended up buying a comal, a metal grill/pan for 20 pesos to cook on). Overall, I found it a very pleasant place to camp and despite the camp manager’s warnings, it never filled up. Because of Germán’s insistence on leaving early due to traffic I was a little sleepy by the time we set up the tent so I took advantage of our shady shelter to take a nice nap. I always relish camping trips that are more relaxing in nature as a lot of the camping I’ve done in my life has been during long-distance hiking trips or while working on trail crew. So we lazily enjoyed the rest of the day, heading into Mineral del Chico, a small old mining town right outside the park to eat lunch and get the rest of the food we would grill that night.
Although the park seemed fairly calm for the vacation season, the town was quite crowded, with all the food stands that are normally in the mercado set up in the center of the main street. Even with the crowds, Mineral del Chico is an adorable town, with cute houses scattered up and down the steep hills and cobblestone streets leading you from place to place. The center has a pretty church with a fountain right in front and apparently the clock in the church was made at the same factory as Big Ben’s clock. Such a tiny town was able to afford such a fancy clock thanks to the (now defunct) lucrative mining business. As we walked around we noticed the quantity of hotels and cabins available in town, it didn’t seem like there’s any shortage of options on where to stay whether in town or in the park. On our way out Germán decided to stop at a carnicería (meat shop) to get some bistek (which means steak but is definitely not what we would think of as steak, its actually really thin slices of beef) to grill that night. I declined eating the meat after I saw the whole animal laying out behind the butcher and how he was touching the meat and the money with his same bare hands (apparently it was delicious though).
After we had our fill of town we head out and I thought it would be great to drive around the park and see the other areas that we hadn’t seen on the way in. So we took a different road into the park and followed what started out as a nicely paved road through the park. After a turn though, the road immediately changed to a dirt path with large rocks scattered around. I was a little disappointed that Google Maps showed the same thickness for both the nicely paved road and the steep almost unnavigable path (normally the thickness tells you a little bit about the quality of the road) but it was indeed a lower-quality road and with the sun starting to set and a thick fog setting in we decided to abort our driving loop mission and return to camp. After a nice dinner of quesadillas (with bistek for Germán) we hung out around the campfire and tucked in early, probably getting around 12 hours of sleep that night.
We had a busier day planned for Friday so decided to get a big breakfast in town and then skip lunch to leave time for hiking and river/mine exploring. We had breakfast on a patio overlooking the main street which offered a breakfast paquete (which literally means package but it means that your breakfast comes with bread, fruit or juice or coffee) which I always love since I feel a little healthier having fruit even if I order chilaquiles.
Despite our best intentions for getting an early start to our hike we made it to the trailhead, which is inside Dos Aguas, at around 1:00pm. Our plan was to hike up to a mirador (viewpoint), which was supposed to be very close. At the first intersection in the trail, I opened up a picture I had taken of the trail map at the base to see which way we should go.After many such turns, we were passing through beautiful forests full of flowers hanging off of trees but had hiked longer than we should have without reaching the mirador. We contemplated turning towards where we thought the mirador was but instead kept following the map and eventually ended up on a dirt road similar to the one we had driven on the night before.
We saw by the signs that we were near the Los Conejos campground and at a place called Cruz de los Negros but that did not appear in our basic map. After chatting with a few other hikers passing by we learned that the most visited viewpoint, Peña del Cuervo was back down the road in the direction we had came from but that there was a better and higher viewpoint on the trail that went to Los Conejos if you kept to the left at a fork. I’m always interested in off the beaten path places and after having hiked for hours with no view yet I wanted to try the better one. So we set off down the trail and after I started getting suspicious that this supposed left fork didn’t exist and we had resigned ourselves to just checking out the campsite, the fork in the trail appeared. Very soon after the fork the trail opened up and changed to a scramble over rock formations. After a bit of climbing we reached the peak, called Peña La Cercada (which seems to be labeled as Peña Cruz del Negro en Google Maps), where we found an old tower and supply shed and no other people, our “sauntering” had paid off! Sure enough, we could see Peña del Cuervo far below us and the town of Mineral del Chico a little beyond that. We seemed to be at the same level as Las Monjas (The Nuns), a distinctive rock formation that according to local legend were nuns that were changed into rocks due to bad behavior. El Chico is known for being a rock climber’s paradise and seeing all the rocks faces poking through the trees really made me see all the opportunities there are for climbing there.
After hanging out for a bit at our superior viewpoint we turned back around and took a chance on another trail that seemed to lead more directly to the road that would take us down to the other viewpoint and then back to camp. Luckily, it did indeed lead down to the road though it seemed like it was definitely a social trail, not a formal one. When we got to Peña del Cuervo we chatted with the man checking entrance tickets ($36 to get into the entire park) who told us that to get back down to Dos Aguas we should follow the trail that starts at the sign with a cat (they have signs every so often describing the local wildlife). After checking out the view at this lower viewpoint (still nice but quite crowded) we turned back towards camp. We realized on the way down that our mistake climbing up was taking a trail that had a sign for Cruz de los Negros instead of an unmarked trail.
Back in camp, we quickly got changed in the hopes of being able to stop by Río de los Milagros before dinner. The river is a little beyond town but there are signs pointing the way. We parked near a sign for the river but to get to the waterfall we had to walk down the steep road for about 10 minutes which would normally be fine but my knee was starting to bother me after so much downhill hiking and I was wishing we had driven down the road which, though steep, was paved. The river was pretty but I felt it didn’t quite live up to its name, the River of Miracles, I was imagining a wilder and wider body of water though apparently the name comes from the fact that it flows year-round, even through the dry season.
After passing by the waterfall we saw signs for the mines which Germán had wanted to check out so we kept going down until we got to an area with food stands and music and painted signs over entrances into the mountains. It was around 7pm but there were still tours available for any groups that arrived so we joined up with a family of 6 to see the Mina de San Antonio. We were given hard hats and flashlights at the entrance and taken through various tunnels which were originally built by the Spanish but later expanded by the English who settled in the area due to the mining potential. I probably wouldn’t have done the mine tour if not for Germán but the guide was nice and told us about the history and at one point had us walk with our flashlights off to experience total darkness. I was impressed mostly by the slippery wooden ladders that they had us climb up and down to get to the different levels of the mine – this tour is definitely not for the mobility-challenged. We emerged from the mine into more darkness as the sun had set at this point and we luckily got a ride up the road from our guide’s boss. We tried to find a trout restaurant since Germán wanted to take advantage of being next to fresh water (I would have eaten enchiladas or something as I am not a fan of fish) but we didn’t see the restaurant open on the dark road leading farther away from town. So we turned back and since I was quickly slipping into a hangry mood, we entered the first restaurant that caught our attention.
Right next to the church to looker’s right, the restaurant was a super hipster bar with a mountain feel that served some basic food and it turned out that it was literally opening day. We got some craft beer from Cervecería Hacienda and ordered our food. Of course since I was the hungry one Germán got his first and he actually finished most of his food before my pasta came out. They still have to iron out some kinks but it seems like this place has good potential and the owner is a young, super-friendly guy who was very apologetic about my tardy meal. Since we were very hungry and our meals weren’t very big we went after dinner to get some pastes, the typical food of the area that’s like an empanada filled with potatoes or meat or beans. They say it was brought over by the English and was a preferred food of the miners because they would hold onto the curled crust with their dirty hands and then just toss that part after they had eaten the filled center. At this point our hands were also quite dirty but we ate our whole pastes and returned to camp to enjoy another bonfire and a peaceful night under the stars.
Our plan for Saturday was to break camp then drive over to Mineral del Monte (also known as Real del Monte), a bigger old mining town, then beyond to Los Prismas Balsáticos, a super unique volcanic formation and then over to an old hacienda nearby. So we bid farewell to our campsite and drove out through a part of the park we had yet to go through. We passed by Las Ventanas which is the most popular spot for rock climbing and although we didn’t go in because they wanted to charge us per person and per vehicle it seemed like there were some pretty easy routes to try there. We passed a few more campgrounds spread out over grassy fields which would have been nice if they hadn’t been lacking in shade and full of families blasting music from their parked cars. Finally, we passed by a visitor’s center which had a nice bathroom and a detailed and seemingly accurate map (though not available in print). The landscape changed in this short distance to more arid surroundings though the pine forests continued even beyond the park.
We finally hit the dreaded Semana Santa traffic in a big way as we were passing through Mineral del Monte and then on the road to the prismas. When we finally got there, we discovered that the almost untouched geological formation that Germán remembered going to 20 years ago had changed into a tourist mecca, complete with a pool and horse rides around the giant parking lot surrounded by food and artesanía stands. It was also quite costly for Mexican standards at $100 per person. But after driving all this way we paid to enter and walked down to the edge of the cliff which the river had cut out, showing the basalt prisms on either side. It would have been very nice to walk along if it hadn’t been full of families drinking micheladas and people ziplining across the gorge. After being in such a chill place for the last few days it was exactly the opposite vibe that I was looking for so we didn’t even get all the way down before turning around and heading out. We thought the hacienda turned hotel Santa María Regla, which is where they filmed Zorro, would be equally as crowded so we called it a day and set our GPS to Mexico City. On the way back we stocked up on pastes to eat that week as they are such a tasty portable snack. We made great time on the way back and returned home grateful for our flushing toilet and shower.
Parque Nacional El Chico has been one of my favorite trips in México so far. There are many places in México where I wouldn’t go hiking without someone who knew the way but in El Chico, despite getting a little lost, the trails are quite clear and if you had an accurate map they would be easy to follow. Basically the outdoor tourism infrastructure is a little more built up here than in other areas so that it feels friendly and approachable while the landscape is still dramatic enough to impress. It’s the perfect place to go to reset your circadian clock and slow down your fast-paced mindset, even if you decide to go hike and explore in addition to relaxing at camp. I hope I get back soon!